COVID-19 can be a wake-up call for nature-based solutions

Money alone won’t solve the problem; but governments hold powerful levers to make markets value nature and attach a cost to environmental destruction  

By Zac Goldsmith
Published: Tuesday 29 September 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities on multiple levels. But with any luck, it may also serve as a wake-up call.

Grubbing out ecosystems and perpetuating grim illegal wildlife trade — not to mention the worst excesses of factory farming — dislodge and facilitate new deadly diseases. At the same time, our routine misuse of antibiotics has compromised our capacity to cope.

The pandemic is a symptom of our abuse of the natural world, but science couldn’t be clearer — this crisis will be dwarfed by others if we continue to destroy the natural environment and destabilise our climate.

The Living Planet Index as of September 2020 showed that populations of key species declined by 68 per cent in little more than my lifetime — an evolutionary nanosecond. Hundreds of thousands of species face extinction — from marine leviathans to chameleons small enough to balance on the head of a match.

Deforestation is the second leading cause of climate change: Every minute the world loses 30 football pitches worth of forests.

The tragedy is writ large. And it is a human tragedy as well. A billion people depend on forests for their livelihood. Roughly the same number depends on fish for survival. When nature’s free services fail, it is the poorest who suffer first.

Turning this around is surely the principle challenge of our age. And we can do it, if governments step up.

As co-hosts of the next United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention Conference of the Parties (COP), the United Kingdom is in pole-position to galvanise global action.

The market is thankfully racing ahead of the politics on emissions, with investment in renewable energy now exceeding investment in fossil fuels. But technology alone cannot prevent climate change.

Nature-based solutions — such as protecting and restoring mangroves, forests and peatlands — could provide a third of the cost-effective climate change mitigation we need as well as help turn the tide on the extinction crisis.

Yet, these solutions attract a measly three per cent of global climate funding. It makes no sense at all.

So, the UK will use our presidency of COP26 to persuade other countries to put nature at the heart of their climate response. We have doubled our International Climate Finance and we will increase our spending on nature as well.

We are rolling out ambitious programmes — a new £100-million Biodiverse Landscapes Fund to connect critically important landscapes, and the £500-million Blue Planet Fund to restore marine ecosystems.

Our Blue Belt initiative is on course to protect an area the size of India around our overseas territories, and we are leading the global campaign to protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.

Money alone won’t solve the problem; but governments hold powerful levers to make markets value nature and attach a cost to environmental destruction.

Agriculture is the cause of at least 80 per cent of global deforestation: Cultivating crops for commodities such as plam oil, soya and cocoa is has been harmful to the environment. If the top 50 food-producing countries follow our lead in replacing their land use subsidies with a system that rewards farmers for environmental stewardship, $700 billion a year — around four times the world’s aid budget — would shift to support nature.

We have also launched a world-leading consultation on a due diligence requirement on big companies to remove deforestation from their supply chains. If we can persuade other countries too, this could flip the market to make forests worth more alive than dead.

This week at the United Nations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a ‘Leader’s Pledge for Nature’ that the UK has played a leading role in crafting. An ambitious call to action, it recognises the failure of many previous declarations, and invites every generation to judge leaders on whether they honour their word.

As governments map out their economic recoveries, we have a choice. We can prop up the status quo, locking in decades of carbon emissions and environmental destruction — or we can choose this moment to profoundly reset our relationship with the natural world. 

The author is UK Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment

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